I am of the opinion that a decorated object is a crafts piece if you look at it and think “How did he or she do that?” and it’s a work of art if you think “Why did he do that?” This is what sets apart a piece, say, of contemporary ceramics, very often all about technique and glazes and firing, and a piece by Damien Hirst, which is less about technique and more about getting you thinking. In watches, there are several brands who specialize in beautiful dials, such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Vacheron Constantin, and others, and the brands themselves often refer to their techniques as “Metiers d’art” performed by “Mains d’or.” Amazing pieces, but more crafts than art. In this case, it’s different. (Below, photo by Claude Joray, courtesy of Hermès)
You look at the dial and you are gradually drawn into the landscape, into the swirling hills with snow-capped mountains miles away in the background under the sky suggested by stippling, and you begin to think, what’s going on? Two travellers with ox, horse and donkey laden with baggage, on what looks like an arduous route; another figure higher up moving in the opposite direction. Are they all directed to what looks like a fortress at top left? The monochromatic technique and the amazing precision of touch give it additional fascination.
La femme aux semelles de vent translates as “the woman with soles of wind,” and the motif is based on a drawing by artist Aline Honoré, used for a Hermès scarf produced in 2009, one of a series of scarf designs on the theme of travel. The woman in question is Alexandra David-Néel, a French/Belgian explorer and writer most famous for her journey to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924 when it was closed to foreigners. A period photo of Alexandra in Lhasa (licensed under Public Domain via Commons, Wikipedia) possibly indicates what inspired the original artist Aline Honoré, showing Alexandra disguised as a beggar and carrying a backpack during her journey with her adopted child Yongden on their way to the Forbidden City. Perhaps the monastery in the composition is Ganden, or Sera. Alexandra David-Néel was truly the woman with soles of wind: her daring and courage never abandoned her, and her epic journeys brought her across Himalayan peaks and to lands that were then mysterious and distant. Just her trek to Lhasa was a journey of over 3,000 kilometres, and she was the first Western woman to enter the capital of Tibet. Below, image from the autumn/winter 2009 Scarf leaflet, courtesy of Hermès:
The title of the original scarf was probably adapted from Verlaine’s description of writer Rimbaud as “l’homme aux semelles de vent” between 1875 and 1879 when he virtually disappeared on his travels.
The watch itself is part of the Slim collection by Hermès, with the Hermès Manufacture movement H1950 (made by Vaucher) in a 39.5 mm white gold case. The sapphire caseback reveals the H-symbol finish of the movement and the micro-rotor. The dial is in Sèvres porcelain, presumably painted by Buzan Fukushima, a master of the Japanese Aka-e painting technique, author of the Koma Kurabe watch. (Below, photo by Claude Joray, courtesy of Hermès)
This is a limited and numbered series of 12. The price is probably analogous to that of the Koma Kurabe piece, so around 60,000 Swiss francs.